Examinations and university admissions processes need to be overhauled to cope with a glut of top A levels, a senior Oxford academic at the centre of a row over the rejection of a deaf candidate with six A grades said this week.
John Peach, senior fellow at Brasenose College, spoke out after his college was criticised over its decision not to offer a place to deaf candidate Anastasia Fedotova, who gained six A-grade A levels.
Dr Peach said that state-school pupil Ms Fedotova was refused a place to study mathematics after a thorough interview and testing process that took full account of her disability.
Dr Peach rejected claims that Ms Fedotova was disadvantaged by the college's failure to take her disability into full consideration during the interview process and that she may have lost out because she came from a state school.
"We are being put in a tougher and tougher spot because of the increase in the proportion of candidates getting As," he said.
"Many of us would dearly like to go back to the entrance exam. But the disadvantage of that is that it would give an immediate advantage to the independent sector, which prepares people for exams. Possibly, there is a need for extra papers above A level.
"If and when the Russell Group universities get their independence, then perhaps they could have their own admissions system."
Dr Peach said that the college was alerted by the central university to Ms Fedotova's disability. The college then contacted Ms Fedotova's school, Parrs Wood Technology College in Manchester, to find out what facilities and type of support would best suit her during the interview.
He said that the college bent over backwards to recruit candidates from state schools.
He said that of the seven undergraduate places available in maths at Brasenose, four were won by candidates from state schools despite there being only six applicants from the state sector compared with eight from independent schools.
He said that although Brasenose had the lowest proportion of applications from state school pupils (39.8 compared with an average for all Oxford colleges of 54.5 per cent), it made proportionately more offers to candidates from state schools (44 per cent against a university average of 54.8).
Dr Peach said: "Bias and positive discrimination are unfortunate words... taking disadvantage into account is a positive way to look at it."
Oxford has published guidelines for admissions tutors interviewing disabled candidates. The guidelines are based on the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act 2001, the first part of which comes into force on September 1.
The act makes it unlawful to treat disabled students less favourably than others. Higher education institutions must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled students are not substantially disadvantaged.
The Oxford guidelines relating to hearing-impaired students include ensuring that interview rooms are well lit to allow easy lip-reading, making available a sign language interpreter and allowing a disabled student more time to complete tests.
Jane Minto, head of admissions at Oxford, said that because the vast majority of Oxford candidates expected to gain top A-level grades, interviews and testing were the fairest way to ensure that all candidates stood an equal chance of gaining a place, regardless of background or disability.
Ms Minto said: "It is not sufficient to say that those with the most good A levels get in.
"Mathematics is not a broadly based degree. What you have got to do is identify the top 2 per cent who do not just have good technical abilities but who have a conceptual grasp or intuitive understanding of maths."
But Brian Lamb, director of communications for the Royal National Institute for the Deaf, questioned Oxford's admissions process. He said: "It is inevitable when you have so many dispersed colleges with their own interpretations of policy, their own college histories... that there is no consistency."
Barbara Waters, chief executive of the National Bureau for Students with Disabilities, said that Oxford had a duty to review what skills tutors were grading in interviews.
She said this would help calm fears over potential inconsistency.
'I did not want to be treated with kid gloves'
Mark Higgins will be starting his third and penultimate year at Oxford in October where he is studying law with French.
He wanted to win his place at St John's College on merit and not because his blindness gave him a "passport" to study there.
"I applied to Oxford, as much as anything else, because they were willing to adapt. I did not want to be treated with kid gloves.
"Ample allowance was made at my interview, but you cannot expect to win a place because you have a disability.
"The written test was one hour and they put that up to one and a half hours for me, but there was no allowance on the academic side. The interview was 35 minutes and, I can assure you, I was given a tough time.
"I cannot imagine facilities being better than they are at Oxford. But that does not mean you are given everything on a plate. You have to ask for what you want, and some people don't."